Working Parent or Stay-at-Home Parent: Who Does More?

boy-hanging-on-father-at-home-0624136A surprising number of clients come into my office having a basic disagreement with a spouse about one simple question: “Is it more difficult to take care of children at home, or to leave your children and go to a paying job?” I see this in couples I work with, and the same difficulty is often mentioned by parents who see me individually. Whether the parent is at home full-time, working part-time, or on family leave, the same question often arises.

Those with a paying job will say to their partners, “I need to get more sleep than you, because I have to go to work in the morning.”

At-home parents often say to me, “My partner needs a break after getting home from work.” And just as often, the working parent is given time to exercise, have a drink with friends, or play golf, while the at-home parent continues caring for the kids.

Well, they work hard for those breaks, don’t they?

I think it’s time to bust the myth on this one. As any parent who has spent time working for pay as well as time caring for children at home will tell you, raising children may at times be joyful, but it is also more exhausting, emotionally draining, stressful, and occasionally mind-numbingly boring than almost any job out there.

Sure, there are parents who love being home with their kids, just as there are men and women who love their jobs of all kinds. But what job, other than raising kids, includes responsibility for life and death (ever load a toddler who’s having a tantrum into a minivan in a busy mall parking lot?), has totally and completely unreasonable bosses (the kids) who don’t pay you and rarely give any positive feedback (especially when you’re doing your job), does not allow a lunch break, a coffee break, or even guaranteed bathroom break, and runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unless you can find someone to “give you a break?”

What other job puts you in daily jeopardy of being bitten, kicked, or punched, and doesn’t allow you to hit back? And the worst part is, after a day of keeping kids entertained, fed, nurtured, cleaned, and clothed, our partners come home and ask us what we did all day, because the house is a mess!

I have played both roles in my family. I have stayed at home full-time or part-time as the primary caregiver, and I have worked full-time while my partner stayed at home. And I will agree that it is all too easy to question what your partner does all day when you come home.

It’s even easy for the at-home parent to question themselves about what they did all day. But don’t do it! There is nothing more demoralizing than putting your own needs aside for the sake of your kids most of the day, every day, and then hearing our partner (the one person who might validate our work) question our productivity.

The basic problem is that when two parents are raising and supporting a household with young children, there is more work to be done than there is time and energy to do it. And getting into a competition about who does more can only make things worse. Both moms and dads need time with the kids and time away from the kids. Both need time to attend to their own needs. And no one has the monopoly on stress when a couple is raising children. All couples have to make sure that each partner gets his or her needs for self-care met to the extent possible in order to maintain a sustainably happy, healthy family.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Meri Levy, MA, MFTI, Postpartum Depression Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • lana

    June 24th, 2013 at 10:45 PM

    mom always told how it was difficult caring for us and dad about how office was hell.this led to conflicts all the time.and I am sure both suffered due to this.a harmonious relationship in itself can drive away the stress and make partners feel better.partnership is what is important,not what how much each partner does.

  • matt

    June 25th, 2013 at 4:03 AM

    The terminology “works more” doesn’t fit because this is like comparing apples to oranges. So staying home with the kids might mean more of one type of work while working away from home might be another. This does not have to be a competition.
    We all work hard for our families, whether we do it away from home or within it. Isn’t that enough to just admit that it takes every situation to make it work, and that we are all doing our part to create a strong family dynamic?

  • David Buerer

    June 25th, 2013 at 6:10 AM

    I must confess i have never been a stay-at-home parent for more than 10 days – and it’s been years since i had a two parent household. But for the 10 days – my house was clean, dinner was always on time if not early – and it was a lot of fun. maybe it becomes more “work” after several months. But i find managing a toddler so much easier than managing my cranky co-workers even if they have some similarities. Regardless, if you’re in a relationship you must response, honor, cherish, and appreciate each other for all that you do and for always. Period. Everyone needs breaks – both stay at home parent and working parent. And if you’re at home and don’t want to be? Get a job. If you’ve got a job and you want out? Well you mightbe stuck but if you can…do it. Themost danerous thing ever is to compare apples to oranges…is that what’s been done here?

  • Meri Levy, MA,

    June 25th, 2013 at 3:05 PM

    Thanks so much for your comments, David, Matt & Lana.

    I agree that comparing working for pay and caring for children at home is truly comparing apples and oranges. When couples can both respect each others’ work and care for their family cooperatively, it is best for parents and children alike. A cooperative parenting relationship is one of the most important factors in the emotional well-being of families as well as children as they grow up.

    The impetus for this article is that in my practice, the workloads are in fact often compared, and the at-home parent is often given short shrift. I imagine part of this is due to our society’s tendency to undervalue raising children as compared to making money. I often see parents in my practice who bend over backward to ensure that their wage-earning partner gets adequate sleep, exercise and down-time, and that the kids get their needs met, with their own needs coming last or not making it on the list at all. More than a few tell me their partners believe that they “do nothing” all day. This can have a serious effect on mental health.

    It very well may be that there are families where the wage-earning parent is the one who never gets a break, and that’s just as much of a problem in my view.

    David, I really echo your sentiments about parents taking the role that suits them best. Some at-home parents would be happier working full or part-time. Similarly, some working parents wish they could have a better work/life balance and should be encouraged to do so if it is feasible.

    The goal of couples counseling should be to increase empathy between parents, so that each partner feels heard, understood, and that their needs matter.

  • Mae

    June 26th, 2013 at 4:06 AM

    Sorry but I have done both, played the breadwinner and played the stay at home mom.
    Both are hard, but raising the kids is much harder
    No lunch break, no paid vacation, rarely a “thank you”

  • Sally High

    June 27th, 2013 at 3:31 AM

    I think a working parent and a stay at home parent have an equally tough job. As a single mother, I am forced to work. When I come home though, my day is just beginning. I have a lot of respect for stay at home mothers. It is a full time job. If your having difficulties with your partner its important to seek couples counseling as a way to understand the importance of each others roles.

  • Meri Levy, MA,

    July 7th, 2013 at 1:25 PM

    Mae, your experience is what I usually hear from the clients I see. I think it takes a lot of planning and effort to figure out ways to get breaks and take care of yourself. And part of that is having to learn how to give yourself validation for own work when you’re not getting “thank you’s” or a paycheck.

    And Sally, as a single working parent you have the hardest job of all. I hope you give yourself lots of pats on the back and get as much help as you possibly can.

  • Ally

    July 20th, 2013 at 9:34 AM

    I have done both and personally I found it very difficult to balance working and raising an infant and decided to stay at home. My husband often works 16 hour days and is on swing shift working 10 days straight and off for 4 if he doesn’t get called in. It is very difficult being a stay at home mom, there are days I’d rather be working. I get no breaks. I’m lucky to use the bathroom without my 2 and 4 year old. My house is often a wreck, dinner is not always on time and I have often been asked “what have you done all day?” It breaks my heart when this question is asked.

    No one ever says that they want to be a homemaker when they grow up. When you decide to be a homemaker, no one tells you how hard it is or on incredibly lonely it can be. I love what I do. I put my heart and soul in raising my children but it is laughable for anyone to say this is easy or not hard as I have been told by my own husband.

    I respect what my husband does but we often argue about this very subject constantly. I really wish he could stay home for a month and experience what I do, really I wish every partner of a sahm could.

    And single moms, I have much respect for you. I really could not imagine how difficult that job is.

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